The Military Religious Freedom Foundation has been fighting to defend religious freedom in the military since 2005. You might think they’ve seen everything. But they haven’t. Although they’ve represented 68,000 clients over the years, they’ve never represented a group of clients composed entirely of military chaplains—until now, in the midst of the coronavirus crisis.
On Wednesday, April 29, Chaplain (Colonel) Moon H. Kim sent an unsolicited digital copy of a book titled “Coronavirus and Christ,” by fundamentalist minister John Piper, to 35 military chaplains, his military subordinates, using his official email account—a clear violation of the First Amendment Establishment Clause as well as multiple military regulations. The book states that the coronavirus was sent “by God,” and that “Some people will be infected with the coronavirus as a specific judgment from God because of their sinful attitudes and actions.” It cites as a specific example, “the sin of homosexual intercourse.”
Kim isn’t just any old chaplain. He’s the command chaplain of U.S. Army Garrison Humphreys in South Korea, the largest U.S. military installation outside of the United States. It’s a position that carries great deal of weight. Twenty-two chaplains have responded by asking MRFF to represent them, and MRFF has sent a demand letter to Secretary of Defense Mark Esper calling for Kim to be “officially, swiftly, aggressively, and visibly investigated and disciplined in punishment for his deplorable actions.”
“This book has helped me refocus my sacred calling to my savior Jesus Christ to finish strong,” Colonel Kim wrote in passing the book along. But it struck a very different chord among the chaplains who reached out to MRFF.
“This literature is opposed to the lives, orientations, as well as religious beliefs and practices of a good many service-members, especially his OWN subordinates! This is not only in poor taste/judgment, it is professionally intimidating/threatening.” one former Army chaplain wrote in an email to MRFF. “The message, intended or not, is: ‘If you want to do well as a chaplain under MY leadership, you need to read and practice good theology like this…!’ I expect better of senior Army Chaplain Corps leadership!”
That intimidating message is precisely the problem. That, and the fact that it’s coming from a superior officer.
Crossing The Line
This is but the latest example of a string of similar coronavirus-related incidents on social media, in which chaplains and others have crossed the line and used official channels to promote sectarian religious beliefs in ways that violate the Constitution as well as military regulations. In three of four earlier incidents, videos posted on official military base Facebook pages were taken down almost immediately following MRFF’s swift action. "The only proper place for these videos is on the chapel pages," MRFF explained. The fourth case took about a week to resolve.
What’s different this time is that it was directed to chaplains, who know very well that it’s forbidden. Chaplains have specific pastoral channels for such communication—both in real life and online—where those receiving them have consented in advance. Those channels weren’t used in the four cases involving Facebook videos, and they weren’t used by Colonel Kim in sending out “Coronavirus and Christ” either. So, while the chaplains-only response was unusual—even unique—the underlying reason was not.
“Our job is to protect the wall separating church and state in the US military,” MRFF founder and President Mikey Weinstein told Crooks and Liars. “In this instance, the actions of Chaplain Col. Moon H. Kim violated the 'No Establishment' Clause. He's establishing a religious faith through the use of his senior military position over his otherwise helpless subordinates,” Weinstein explained. “We also look at Clause 3, Article 6 which says we'll never have a religious test, and he's essentially creating a de facto religious test for his subordinates and anybody else who's out there.”
What Col. Kim believes is irrelevant, Weinstein said. “We literally don't care about anybody’s faith in their head. We couldn’t care less,” he explained, even if it’s prejudicial. “That’s perfectly fine. You’re prejudging in your mind,” he said.
“If, however, your behavior objectively manifests discrimination against people because of the brief in your head,” that’s a different story, he explained. That not only singles out individuals, it damages the “good order, moral, unit cohesion, and discipline” that’s vital to the military mission, and is enforced by military regulations. This is the core problem that arises repeatedly in cases brought to MRFF.
“I was asked the other day by a reporter. ‘What would you do if you had a progressive senior chaplain who was sent something like that out lambasting people believing that marriage is between one woman and one man?” Weinstein recalled. “We would be doing the exactly same thing as we’re doing here.”
“And as was stated by one of our 22 clients before, had chaplain Kim wanted to discuss this—or any chaplain with views supporting John Piper—we find it to be repulsive, but he has every right to his beliefs. He could do a sermon. He could do a Bible study about it with people who have voluntarily come and want to hear what he’s talking about. It's perfectly fine. But this was done during duty hours on a government computer.”
The Pattern To Date
This exactly the same principle that was involved in the four previous coronavirus-related cases.
On March 19, the Air Force Reserve posted a proselytizing video under the rubric of “spiritual resiliency” on their official Facebook page and YouTube channel. “We can all use some spiritual resilience in this challenging time,” the Facebook post began. That same day, MRFF’s demand letter cited Air Force Instruction 1-1 [AFI 1-1], Section 2.12, which states:
“Leaders at all levels… must ensure their words and actions cannot reasonably be construed to be officially endorsing or disapproving of, or extending preferential treatment for any faith, belief, or absence of belief.”
The video was immediately taken down.
On March 9, a single phone call from Weinstein, on behalf of five active duty clients at Ft. Hamilton in Brooklyn resulted in the swift removal of a Christian chaplain’s video from Ft. Hamilton's official Facebook page.
On April 17, two chaplains at Fort Drum in upstate New York, posted videos on the official Facebook page of the 10th Mountain Division Sustainment Brigade (which has 7,828 followers), rather than on Ft. Drum's Chapel Facebook page (which has only 348 followers)where they belong. Again, it only took one call to get the videos taken down.
The fourth one took almost a week to resolve. On April 21, Deputy Garrison Chaplain Major Christian Goza posted a proselytizing video on the main Facebook page of the Redstone Arsenal in Alabama, and MRFF initiated efforts to have it taken down. On April 23, they sent a demand letter, and it was finally taken down on April 27.
There are two reasons these cases were so swiftly resolved: First, they’re such open-and-shut cases, as the language from AFI 1-1 makes clear. Second, the military hates the publicity, whether it’s “being attacked in federal court, which they can't stand no matter what happens being,” getting complaints through the either Inspector General or the Equal Employment Opportunity offices, or, “If that doesn't work, we will go to the media,” Weinstein said.
Forgetting The Chaplains' Role
The problem in all these cases is that the chaplains involved are so wrapped up in their own religious beliefs that they’ve abandoned their proper role as chaplains, which is not just to minister to individual service members, but to serve the spiritual need of their units as a whole.
“Going back to the Revolutionary war, Washington and a lot of his senior staff felt it was important to have chaplains,” Weinstein told Crooks and Liars. “Most nations have chaplains in the military,” he explained. “But he was also concerned about the fact that the role of the chaplains be constrained so as not to sow discontent among the ranks of the military.”
Sowing discontent was potentially a very serious problem. That’s why their role has been carefully crafted, Weinstein explained. “Their proper role—and they're taught all the time—is to provide or perform– three words–provide the services requested by the members in your unit. Or if you are unable to, for whatever reason—if you're a chaplain whose denomination does not believe in same-sex marriage, if you can't marry someone—then find someone else there who can do it. Perform or provide.”
It is not the chaplain’s role to criticize, attack or undermine the religious faith (or non-faith) of servicemembers who do not conform to their faith. Such actions only serve to undermine morale, good order, discipline and unit cohesion. Not only is that severely detrimental to the success of the military, it’s directly contrary to the reason for them being chaplains in the first place.
When they get carried away with their zeal, “It violates the time, place and manner restrictions of our Constitution, construing federal case law, and particularly the regulatory structure of the Pentagon,” Weinstein said. “Too much of the chaplaincy believes that their job is to spread the gospel, it is not to perform or provide. Their job is they see a bunch of low hanging fruit, particularly those people who are subordinate to them.”
“MRFF has no trouble with chaplains in the military,” he explained. “We have trouble with them wearing a military rank.” And the higher the rank, the greater the problem in terms of coercive pressure felt by those ranking beneath them. “The dynamics between the military superior, and subordinates is on a different side of the universe from, say, your shift manager at Starbucks or your boss at Acme Corporation,” Weinstein explained. “We have many clients that are chaplains. Many, many, many. However, we prefer to have them be GS employees, civilian employees.”
The Christian Post covered this story and quoted Mike Berry, general counsel for the Christian-right, anti-LGBT First Liberty Institute in opposition, pretending to speak up for the very people that MRFF represents:
Our brave service members should be offended that Mikey Weinstein thinks they are so delicate and frail that they are incapable of hearing something with which they might disagree. Quite the contrary, the vast majority of service members with whom I served, whether senior or subordinate, were smart enough to decide for themselves."
But almost 70,000 service members were smart enough to decide they needed MRFF’s help, so there's something seriously wrong with his logic. I asked Weinstein for his view.
“It’s not just disingenuous and dishonest. That sounds awfully like telling a woman who’s undergoing sexual assault, ’Sit back and enjoy it,’ he said. “It is infuriating.”
What’s more, he added, “It's easy for him to say when he is not in the chain of command.”